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These Drones Hunt Whale Snot

Snotbots will make mucus collection less stressful for whales

(Konrad Wothe/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When scientists want to figure out what’s going on inside the mouths and noses of whales, they face an ethical challenge. The only way to study whale lungs and the mucus inside is to get close to whales themselves, a task that usually involves crossbows, harassment and lots of stress. Now, reports Engineering.com’s Tom Spendlove, there’s a new ally in the fight to find out more about whale health: drones that specialize in whale snot.

They’re called Snotbots, writes Spendlove, and they’re being developed by Ocean Alliance and the Olin College of Engineering. It turns out that figuring out how to make drones whale-snot-proof was a task in itself: Spendlove writes that engineers had to make sure the drones were aerodynamic, waterproof, and able to collect just the right amount of whale mucus.

Why go through all this for whale snot? It’s all about what’s inside, writes LiveScience’s Jeanna Bryner. The mucus contains bacteria, micro-organisms and DNA that can help researchers monitor whale health and learn more about whales as a species. To date, scientists have had to resort to studying dead or diseased whales or harassing live ones to collect snot from spouts.

Now that the less-invasive drone has been developed, Ocean Alliance hopes to raise $225,000 to deploy them during three upcoming expeditions. They’ve enlisted Sir Patrick Stewart for a Kickstarter campaign that demonstrates just how stressful current techniques for snot collection can be.

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